Qualcomm COO Steve Mollenkopf talks 28nm supply, low-end market and displays

It goes without saying that it's been a good year for Qualcomm -- so good that the mobile chipmaker invited us over to its San Diego headquarters to share the story. There we met up with President and COO Steve Mollenkopf, who started off the session by reflecting on the 28nm production "issues" since mid-year. Without naming any participating foundries, Mollenkopf carefully reiterated that the supply struggled to match the "tremendous demand" of the new 28nm Krait-based products at the time, but he thinks Qualcomm will be out of that problem starting this month. "It was something that we had this year and last fiscal year, but moving forward, I don't see that to be an issue," said Mollenkopf. Judging by the increasing number of devices carrying Qualcomm's quad-core chipsets, we certainly hope this is the case.

Qualcomm Chief Marketing Officer Anand Chandrasekher

When asked about how Qualcomm's doing with its reference design (aka QRD) business in China, Mollenkopf said while it's no easy task to cater to the numerous OEMs with different needs, his team's continuing to invest "pretty heavily" in that competitive area. "There's not one-size-fits-all in terms of what customers need with the reference design. Some of the large customers want a lot more variability, ability to make adjustments to it; some of the smaller customers don't need to be able to make as many changes. So we're broadening our portfolio. We've been investing in engineers pretty substantially in China in order to do that." Qualcomm claims that with its QRD turnkey model, an OEM can place a product on the market in less than 60 days.

But obviously, Qualcomm isn't the only company offering such service in China, and there's space for improvement as well. Earlier that day, Chief Marketing Officer Anand Chandrasekher (pictured above; and you may remember him from his Intel days) acknowledged that the competitors do slightly better in the low-end market, while Qualcomm has some advantages in the higher end of the spectrum. Yet unlike its main competitor MediaTek, Qualcomm actually attempts to prevent its chips being used in KIRFs through auditing, according to Senior Director of Product Management Sean O'Leary (who's showing off a partial list of preferred vendors below). Obviously there's also Rockchip, AllWinner, NuFront and Huawei's HiSilicon in the affordable market, but MediaTek is certainly the big daddy of all.

Qualcomm Senior Director of Product Management Sean O'Leary

While Qualcomm is keen to tap the developing markets, it has surprisingly little interest in the low-end tablets. "We think that market can be served quite well from the phone or the so-called 'phablet'," said Mollenkopf. "It's an interesting market -- there's a lot of volume there, but there's nothing really differentiating itself at that point." (Take that, NVIDIA!) The COO's focus is more on what he would consider to be the connected mobile computing tablet, which understandably rules out the super low-end segment for the time being.

When we asked Mollenkopf for some thoughts on the trend of PCs moving from x86 to ARM, he implied that he doesn't think the traditional PC itself will disappear, though it's certainly transitioning very rapidly with much support from even the seasoned ecosystem providers, and that the volume is definitely going to shift more towards the mobility aspects -- thus echoing his earlier comments. Mollenkopf also stressed the importance of integration: "Everyone kinda talks about it from power. Power of course is very important, but really, there's a bundle of technologies you have to have to make sure they're highly integrated: so you have to have modem, you have to have connectivity, you have to have GPS, you have to have graphics, you have to have CPU." Indeed, Qualcomm pretty much has all of these first hand. "The ability to wrap all that technology in some easy way for an OEM to crave and to thrive on, that's the differentiator. That's exactly what you need to do if you're gonna be a smartphone silicon provider." Sounds like a helpful advice for Intel right there.

Qualcomm Museum

Last but not least, a question was raised regarding the status of the seemingly dormant Mirasol MEMS display technology. Even though Qualcomm's already pulled out of production in favor of a licensing model earlier this year, Mollenkopf insisted that his company continues to invest in the butterfly-inspired Mirasol, only to put the business focus onto a new mysterious class of product as opposed to the old e-reader and phone space. Mollenkopf also reminded us that his company owns Pixtronix, which is another type of power-efficient MEMS display with slightly different characteristics. The COO still envisions a future where all color displays need not to be switched off and yet can remain connected, thus enabling a new type of use case. With the recent announcement of Qualcomm and Sharp's joint development on their MEMS and IGZO technologies, it's clear that Mollenkopf wasn't kidding about his company's commitment to display technologies -- it's just that his team's "trying to do a little bit of work to help people understand" what Mirasol and Pixtronix can do. Well, we shall see.